When the fifth season of “Homeland” (Showtime) begins, with Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) receiving communion in a sparsely attended church, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad from which the series forged two of last year’s most tense and terrifying hours of television — “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad” — at first seems a distant memory. Soon, though, the ghosts of conflicts past descend on Carrie, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). As one Hezbollah commander says in the early going, “I will fight you forever,” and it’s in this steely, almost resigned vernacular that “Homeland” once again examines the War on Terror’s hideous moral calculus.
Far removed from the execution of Carrie’s former lover, Nicholas Brody, and thus from the worst excesses of their twisted romance, “Homeland” has been wholly reinvented as a grim, globe-spanning thriller, and the new season builds a head of steam with even more haste than the last. As Carrie, security consultant to vainglorious German philanthropist Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch), is drawn back into the CIA’s tilted orbit — one whose center of gravity has shifted away from the United States, Pakistan and Al Qaeda and toward Europe, Syria and Islamic State — the skillful construction allows for a cat’s cradle of subplots, and watching the series tangle and untangle them is perhaps its foremost pleasure.
Occasionally, a striking image—four lines scribbled on the back of a photograph, Carrie sitting cross-legged with a veritable Book of the Dead—may demand a brief caesura to consider the connection between actions and consequences, but what’s most remarkable about “Homeland” of late is how closely its narrative machinery simulates the war that has always been its subject. Whether surveying the fallout from a breach of classified data, particularly for Saul and the CIA’s Berlin station chief, Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), following Quinn’s off-book operations, or seeing Carrie embark on an exceedingly dangerous investigation, the series is slimmed-down and unfussy in the extreme, as if to apologize for its former convolutions. “I’m not a statesman, Herr Düring,” Saul says in one terse exchange, as if to drive home the point. “I’m a spy.”
Rather than register as a tacit endorsement of U.S. foreign policy, however, the series increasingly deploys its damaged characters, with more nuance than kissing cousin “24” ever mustered, in the service of a sharp critique. Building on last season’s portrait of the “blowback” from armed invasions, drone strikes, and civilian deaths, the Düring Foundation reports on illegal CIA surveillance and provides humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees; Quinn, in a meeting with high-ranking government officials, practically sets empty American rhetoric aflame. “What strategy?” he asks, when one attendee wonders if any progress has been made. “Tell me what the strategy is and I’ll tell you if it’s working.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s Carrie’s creeping sense of moral revulsion that conveys this notion most vigorously. In one sequence, from the riveting third episode, “Super Powers,” she arrives at a reckoning, couched in the terms of her newfound faith. “You can’t atone for that much blood, that many souls,” she tells her coworker and love interest, Jonas (Alexander Fehling). “Absolution is not available.” Pouting, insulting, flirting, smirking, and abusing, Danes reminds us not only of her talents, but also of the reason why Carrie Mathison has been, and remains, such a compelling emblem of her country’s sojourns abroad: the United States has too often destroyed the proverbial village in order to save it, a doctrine that might well be described as bipolar.
All of this is not to say that “Homeland” is without flaw — an American journalist and political dissenter, Laura Sutton (Sarah Sokolovic), is written too shrilly to wage her side of the argument effectively, for example — but that the new season contains the same promise of a bleak, wounded masterwork that last season eventually fulfilled. At once acknowledging and resisting the suggestion that the War on Terror has succeeded only in making us less safe, the characters approximate the strange tenor of the real-life debate over means and ends, a Sisyphean climb toward rational assessment constantly undermined by irrational fear.
That the series manages to square space for energetic action sequences and so many prickly personalities without losing this thread of profound ambivalence is a credit to the writers’ willingness to change course after the Brody debacle, and then to tighten the screws further. By the very nature of its material, “Homeland” may always be at risk of spinning off its axis, but in this current guise — this ruthlessly efficient, even brutal tale of what Dexter Filkins called “the forever war” — it shows no signs of slowing.
The fifth season of “Homeland” premieres Sunday, Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.